The first thing that strikes one about Elisabeth Granli is her smile - open, friendly and curious about the world. Then, the bright blue eyes and her height - the Norwegian native tends to tower a bit above everyone. We recently met coming off a flight in Mumbai where the model-turned-photographer spent a few days to photograph children of sex workers in Mumbai’s red light district on invitation of a non-profit.
Now in her fifties, Granli recalls her years in the modelling industry - travelling all over the world to shoot ads and pictures for catalogues for fashion, bridal wear, accessories and beauty and a host of other products. While she did some runway shows in Milan, Granli never made it into the echelon of top models - or even rubbed shoulders with them.
In a nightclub in Paris, she once danced with Jack Nicholson, who’s girlfriend she became for the movie “Something’s Gotta Give” years later. He did not remember the Paris encounter but liked her response when he asked “what’s your good side?” upon being photographed together at the casting. Not one to be intimidated by celebrities, pat came the answer “I don’t know, what’s yours?”. In an interview with FashionUnited, Granli sheds light on the different facets of modelling.
Usually the modelling world is associated with much of glitz and glamour on the upside and scandals and exploitation on the downside. Has this been your experience?
There is definitely a difference between being a top model and having all eyes on you and seeing modelling as a financial stepping stone, which is what I did. I don’t know how it is now but back then, there was good money in modelling in Japan. A friend of mine stayed for three years, working in Tokyo and saved up enough to go to law school. And the culture there is very different - models are less objectified and it is a very safe space.
Speaking of safe - did you ever have an unpleasant or unsafe experience?
Believe it or not, in all those years, there was only one incident that left a bitter taste in my mouth, which was at the very beginning of my career. I had just started working with an agency in Milan after I got discovered in Oslo. I had been there for two months and met lots of nice people and had lots of fun. But one day at a test shoot, the photographer started masturbating in front of me. Though nothing else happened, I got grossed out and went back to Norway.
But that was not the end of modelling?
No, earlier, I had started studying French at the University of Oslo and was working as a temp at a coffee shop. It was there that I met two photographers who asked if I wanted to model. I had never thought about it but they got me in touch with an agency and that is how I ended up in Milan. After I came back, my plan was to go back to university but modelling (and traveling) was still on my mind. There was a modelling contest, which I entered and won, and the prize was a contract with a modelling agency in Paris.
So I packed my bags and moved. Just living in Paris was so magical - I loved going to the coffee shops and I was reading Sartre and Camus, I was a philosopher model (laughs). One evening we went out and there was Jack Nicholson, and I was dancing with Prince, and it was so normal. They seemed like normal people.
What has been one of your most memorable model assignments and why?
Definitely my trips were memorable. I went to Morocco for a French clothing company - we shot in the desert and we had a team with Beduins and camels, it was so exotic. I also spent five months in Tokyo and some time in China to shoot for a Chinese department store.
In terms of growth and personal development, what is your biggest takeaway from modelling?
It taught me that I have more inner strength than I would have known. Also not being afraid to ask people for help and advice, I learned that from all the traveling. If I wouldn’t have had that experience, I would have been more intimidated. I was also lucky that I was not sexually harassed but I was older and had more of independence; I was not a child or a teenager like quite a few models when they start out.
So I never saw myself as an object, I always saw myself as something more than my looks. Which is something that, being raised in Norway, was emphasised, together with education. There were also many female role models, for instance we had a female prime minister in Norway at the time.
But you did not end up staying in Paris?
No, in 1993 I moved to Los Angeles and got an agency right away, which was Elite. I shot for many European catalogues in Miami (for Otto for example). And then when you’re in L.A., you get in touch with the acting world sooner or later. I landed the small role in “Something’s Gotta Give”, I took acting classes, and ended up with a small part in “L.A. Confidential”, a few student films. But then I gave it up because I had to do so much work on my accent to sound American. (laughs)
You then transitioned from in front of the camera to behind the camera - can you talk a little bit about that switch? What motivated you?
I was always interested in how to make the most of an outfit, the lighting, posture, etc. So I saw the whole process and modelling as part of it. I was interested in what the photographer did as part of a co-creation. There were a few female photographers too. I kept asking them about the cameras and lighting and they were only too happy to explain. I learned much also from just watching and the posing was very natural for me, it was kind of intuitive.
Back in the late ‘90s in L.A., my first assignment was photographing filmmaker David Lynch doing transcendental meditation. More work followed, many headshots for friends and then campaign photos for political candidate Marianne Williamson. Now I do many individual portraits, family portraits, weddings and pets. I liked taking pictures even before modelling, even as I kid, so I feel I have come full circle.
What were some of your most memorable moments as a photographer?
I was working with a non-profit that helps prevent trafficking a few years ago, photographing children that had been saved from a life of sex trafficking in Mumbai, Calcutta and Dhaka. Those were incredible moments, seeing those children opening up. I ended up publishing a book about them (“The Lucky Ones”) whose sales were donated to those organisations.
What would you advise someone starting out in photography?
Just start, start practicing, even with your phone. Lighting and angle is the most important, just play around with the art form. Find out what your strength is and what comes most naturally to you - for me it was portraits. Show your photographs to people and ask for an honest opinion.
What would you advise someone starting out in modelling?
Wait until you are 18 or 19 before you start. I also spent a month away traveling on my own - so I had some experience being on my own. Education is important, also developing a positive self image before being subjected to constant scrutiny.
Anything else you would like to add?
Always remember that you are not your body. Don’t let your self-esteem be changed by the feedback about you - be it praise or criticism. I am grateful that I had that strong backing, being from Norway, where women are not only valued for their looks.